Somalis in Finland are active in running voluntary associations, which have become actors in development cooperation in Somalia. What is the role of diaspora associations in Somalia?
There are over one million Somalis living outside the borders of Somalia. Migration history from Somalia dates back to colonial times when some people left for Italy and the UK to study and work. Later, during the 1970s and 1980s many Somali men migrated to the Gulf countries to work in the oil industry. In largest numbers Somalis have fled the country because of the civil war, which started in 1988 and is still going on in parts of the country.
These people of Somali origin living abroad are often called the [Somali] “diaspora”. The Somali diaspora in particular when talking about its contribution to development refers to the people of Somali origin living in the Western countries.
There are however large refugee communities living in refugee camps in the neighboring countries of Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Numerically these groups are much larger than the Somali communities in the Western countries. But why all the fuzz about the Western based diasporas and ignorance of diasporas living in the developing countries? To put it simply, it’s about the resources. Western based diasporas are perceived as being privileged and having resources and thus are expected to contribute to their country of origin.
This article is based on the interviews and observations I have collected between 2008 and 2011 in Finland and in northern Somalia, self-proclaimed Somaliland. The data includes 42 interviews with Finnish Somalis active in associations, 17 key interviews with the staff of the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs and native Finnish development NGOs in Finland and 27 interviews with diaspora returnees and locals in Hargeisa.
The data was collected for the PhD study of the Somali Diaspora associations, which I finalized in 2013 with the title “Transnational Responsibilities and Multi-sited Strategies: Voluntary Associations of Somali Diaspora in Finland”.
Traditionally diaspora is defined being dispersed from one “centre”: an existing country/nation to which people remain attached and loyal. Thus often diaspora is understood in the level of identity. However, in this article I perceive diaspora not only as attachments to Somalia in the identity level, but from the point of view of material and organizational aspects.
“It is responsibility what you feel when you have left Somalia. When your own things are okay, then you need to go back and give back. I think that the country (Somalia) has given me a lot, I have born there, I have received my education there, it has given me a lot, so I have responsibility to give back somehow.”
This is how a Somali man living in Helsinki, running an association there, described his feelings and motivation to engage in development work in Somalia. This kind of feeling of transnational responsibility is common among first generation Somalis in Finland: They continue to feel responsible not only for their relatives, but also widely for the Somali people. They are deeply concerned about the situation in Somalia and want to act on making things better.
In the literature dealing with diaspora engagement with the country of origin, diaspora activities are often divided into three categories: financial engagements including family remittances and larger business investments, political engagement including direct participation in “homeland” politics and lobbying in the country of settlement and civil society engagement, referring to development and humanitarian work carried out by associations.
Estimates on money flows including individual remittances, investments and development money to Somalia range from US$ 1.2 to 2 billion annually. Importance of the diaspora resources in an extremely poor country is huge, as was expressed by one representative of the Somali diaspora association in Finland:
“Diaspora, if we don’t send, people die. We try to help them. Diaspora is a resource, one of the most important resources in whole Somalia.”
Present-day Somalia has severe problems. The country in parts is still conflict ridden, extreme poverty exists, institutions are absent or very weak and unemployment is high. In these circumstances local people are critical towards the diaspora people when they return and take positions for example in the politics.
Because the Western based diaspora are expected to have resources their return is accepted by the locals only on certain conditions. A Somali man from Canada, who had returned to Somaliland to take care of his elderly mother and to set up an NGO expressed that “expectations from the diaspora are high. You should come with money, even with a few months project.”
Concrete return of diaspora people to the country of origin is challenging in relation to the wider development of Somalia. First critical point concerns the local youth. Looking at the demography of Somalia, over 70 percent of the population is under the age of thirty. However presently youth do not really have opportunities in the country: the unemployment rate of youth is nearly 70 percent and according to UNDP Human Development Report of Somalia (2012) over 60 percent of youth intend to leave the country in search for better livelihood opportunities.
In this context the return of diaspora to take jobs and positions is problematic. Moreover, diaspora return can aggravate further outmigration. When the young people see diaspora people coming back, they perceive them as successful and migration to the West as a way to better living conditions, as was testified by a diaspora returnee from Canada:
“Youth want to leave the country, they see an example of diaspora coming back for vacation, with money, and they want to go out of the country.”
Second critical issue on concrete return concerns diaspora families. Often the children born and raised in the country of settlement do not want to go back to Somalia, which also means that mothers are rarely ready to leave.
Thus it is the Somali men who return which in the worst case may lead to family breakdowns, as was described by a Somali man returned from Canada to Somaliland:
“Negative aspect of diaspora return is family breakdown. Men want to come back, what would I do in Canada, only odd jobs, females don’t want to go back, because their children don’t want to come back, and they want to stay with children. Also, here there is not good service for education or health. For example my wife and one child are diabetic. These are impediments to come back. And then, male come back and they marry second wife here.”
Return issue ties closely to the questions of belonging and integration into the country of settlement. For those Somalis who have not found a “proper” job in the country of settlement, return to Somalia to take part in politics or businesses may appear as an appealing opportunity. This relates partly to issues of social status and recognition which in some cases has been lowered due to the migration process.
One of the diaspora returnees, a Somali man from Finland, described his experiences:
“When I came to Finland in 1992, I was 20 something, I was young, we had visions, dreams about Somalia, my family background was part of the leaders of Somalia, and then I was a refugee in Helsinki, so you can imagine that feeling, very big gap, in your culture you are something, and now you are someone no one knows, you are Somali, you are black, you are Muslim, all these negative things. It was psychologically very hard.”
Moreover, as diaspora consists of different individuals and life destinies, there are also people who suffer from several severe problems, such as mental illness and drug problems, or commit crimes in the country of settlement. Western countries may deport non-citizens who have committed crimes, but also relatives of the people with problems may send them forcefully to the country of origin to heal. These returnees are seen as a burden in the country of origin.
Linkages between transnational engagements on one hand and integration in the country of settlement on the other are multiple and complex. The argument I want to put forward is that concrete return of diaspora should not be viewed as the only way of engagement with the country of origin.
Here, I am approaching the linkages between the diaspora and development of the country of origin in a more nuanced way by focusing on the Finnish Somali diaspora’s continuous transnational engagement positioning them as part of the Finnish society. Belonging to Finland and attachments with Somalia can take place at the same time, and in the best case can also facilitate each other.
Most of the people I have interviewed–Somalis who are active in Finland based associations–are Finnish citizens who have no actual intention, or realistic possibility of returning to Somalia, but who are extremely committed to contributing to development and humanitarian causes in Somalia.
These people running associations successfully are well settled and integrated into the Finnish society. They not only possess a Finnish citizenship and speak fluent Finnish, but often have a job and wide networks in Finland. Through their contacts and knowledge of the Finnish system and bureaucracy they have been able to build up the capacity of their associations, and to access external project funding. Work in associations requires lots of time, commitment and also resources, as in the Finnish tradition associations are mostly based on voluntary work and very rarely offer paid jobs.
Contributions to development matters in the country of origin require resources. That is why it is often those well integrated migrants in the West that can contribute the best, without compromising too much of their needs for maintaining life in the West. At times it is indeed forgotten that in some cases transnational contributions to countries of origin may become a burden to migrants living with scarce resources in expensive western countries.
Somalis are the third largest group of foreign language speakers in Finland and one of the most active groups of migrants in establishing associations. I have estimated that there are around 40–50 functioning associations set up by Somalis, although the exact number is hard to set due to the changing nature of the associations.
The first Somali association in Finland got registered in 1992. Mostly the associations set up by Somalis are small, having under 100 members. However, there are a few examples of larger associations that have developed into organisations with paid staff and lots of activities. Official agendas of associations concern often either community work focusing on integration activities in Finland or development and humanitarian work in Somalia.
However, in reality associations and individuals running them often simultaneously get involved in both of these areas of activity. Most Somali associations are mono-ethnic involving only ethnic Somalis, and in many cases small associations are also clan based. But more and more cooperation is taking place between associations, and especially youth and women of Somali origin are establishing not only cross-clan associations but also cross-cultural associations.
In Finland the civil society associations are mostly based on voluntary work, and their share in service (and paid jobs) provision is rather small, so running an association requires strong commitment and countless hours of work without pay.
Some Somali associations have managed to build their administrative capacity so that they have access to project funding from outside, for example from the Ministry of Education for multicultural activities, from cities for activities in Finland relating to integration, and from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland (MFA) for development projects .
In 2014 12 Somali diaspora associations receive funding from the MFA for 16 different development projects in different parts of Somalia under the budget line of NGO development cooperation. Moreover, four native Finnish development NGOs have individual Somalis on board running development projects. These current projects are in the areas of health, education, women empowerment, environment and rural development. They are implemented in several areas of Somalia, from northern Somalia to the very southern parts of Somalia.
Representatives of Somali diaspora associations whom I have interviewed for my PhD study expressed their will and interest in contributing services, materials, skills and know-how to their country of origin. They felt the responsibility to contribute, as there is a lack of basically everything in Somalia/Somaliland. Associations and their projects in many areas of Somalia actually take care of basic services essential to people. Without civil society organisations these services would not exist.
Moreover, diaspora people through their development projects often transfer much needed skills and know-how to Somalia. There are many examples of Finland based doctors, nurses, teachers and journalists who run the development projects in their own areas of expertise and visit project sites regularly to train local people.
The volume of MFA funding for diaspora associations is small compared to the funding received by native Finnish development organisations. But it still shows that the MFA recognizes Somali associations’ potency to contribute to civil society development in Somalia.
Furthermore, the MFA recognizes the particularity of small associations in development work. This particularity is seen especially in the budgets of the projects of small diaspora associations: very small share of the money is directed to the administration in Finland and nearly all admitted budgets go to the local project and the target group. This is quite a different picture than with the large native Finnish development NGOs, which have heavy administrations eating the budget.
The aim of the NGO development cooperation of Finland is, in addition to service provision, to support and strengthen the local civil society. Thus all these development projects are implemented by a local partner organization in Somalia.
How do the diaspora Somalis find these local partner organisations and through which mechanisms do they engage in certain areas? In most cases Somali diaspora associations have active individuals on board who have close contacts to certain areas in Somalia. These close contacts are often formed through clan connections, which provide a trusted position to people and associations.
Most important reason for selecting an area for a development project in Somalia on the basis of clan is security. In the context of state failure and prolonged conflict access to certain areas securely is possible only through clan connections. Clan structure is still alive in Somalia and it provides an important base for social organization and protection.
The diaspora may not purposefully want to organize around clan lines but clans continue to exist as relevant structures in Somalia. However, due to the changes in conflict in Somalia and the rise of radical Islamists in some parts of the country, clan connections do not necessarily provide safe access either.
Somalis who engage in associations in Finland and contribute to development of Somalia through them frame their engagement around the civil society and distinguish it from political activities. Diaspora Somalis who are active in associations identify themselves as humanitarian actors.
In fact here the question of “what is political” is relevant. In particular in the contexts of conflicts, politics are often seen as violent, dirty and corrupt, and many diaspora people do not want to identify with violence and corruption.
The discourse on humanitarian activities instead of politics involves characteristics such as neutrality and non-violence. The use of this discourse of humanitarian activities by many diaspora people situates them within the civil society of Somalia/Somaliland, and distinguishes them from the conflicting parties who engage by violent means. In this kind of a conflict-ridden situation one definition base for civil society can be between actors who use non-violent means of action, in contrast to those who use violence.
A representative of a diaspora association in Finland described the civil society’s potential as building peace as follows:
“Civil society organisations have an important role in peace-building, they need to ‘civilize’ people, and provide education, and wake people up, wake people up to think and stop…Because a dangerous thing is that during the prolonged war, bad things become normal. If you see people killing each other, it becomes normal, human being is quite strange sometimes, and how it adjusts to the environment, so there is a lot of work to do to wake people up.”
Although the diaspora fulfills important development and humanitarian functions in Somalia, there are also several challenges relating to the long-term development of Somalia.
One challenge is that when the diaspora engages in civil society in Somali areas by using the mediating sphere of a clan, they are able to engage only in a specific location.
There is also fragmentation and duplication of diaspora engagements which rarely builds up to anything large. This means that although diaspora engagements are essential in the local level, for the diaspora it is very challenging to make large, structural changes.
As one local researcher from Hargeisa put it:
“Diaspora has same problems as Somalia has: clan lineages, personal interests, everyone is concerned about their own clans and own interests. Strategic and objective planning, big plan how the diaspora contributes is lacking and it makes it difficult to contribute. Now there are these small projects and diaspora gets tired. Diaspora strategic planning needed on diaspora contributions, national benefit behind it, starting point would be that. Strategic planning would avoid duplication and overlapping.”
Second and related challenge is that diaspora activities are bound by very challenging structures, especially in southern parts of the county. The conflict has transformed in recent years and the radical Islamist group, Al-Shabaab, has become strong in parts of the country.
Al-Shabaab is very hostile towards what I have here called civil society, and diaspora particularly from the west has become one of the targets, as was expressed by one representative of a diaspora association in Finland:
“Those whose suffer in the current conflict are those who have built the peace, supported education, universities and hospitals. This is what I represent also, we support hospitals in Somalia. We, who do this work, are the victims of the crisis. Because in the conflict when they bomb hospitals and mosques, it’s very bad.”
Third challenge for the diaspora to contribute to wider changes in Somalia relates to their position in the eyes of local people. Some diaspora people stand for a view that the diaspora should have a role as an active agent in changing local structures, ways of thinking and acting. This is seen especially in the critical areas such as gender equality, where Somalia ranks as one of the worst countries worldwide.
One Somali woman active in associations in Finland expressed the issue as follows:
“When the peace processes are carried out, one should pay attention to youth and women, too, not only men. People from the diaspora who go back, they should bring their skills and views, not just accept everything that is there. If you accept everything in Somalia, you cannot make any change. Human rights are the key. Diaspora people have to rise up these issues.”
However, in reality the diaspora’s attempts to introduce new ideas and values, in particular when they contrast with values and ideas of local communities, may lead to rejection of diaspora engagement by local communities. When ideas and values are rejected, change rarely happens.
How will the diaspora engagement look like in the future? No one has a definite answer to the question of what will happen to family remittances and ways of engagement when the first generation of Somali migrants gets old and the new generation, born in countries of settlement grows up. This new generation certainly has different views and attachments than their parents’ country of origin. In the most pessimistic scenarios the new generation is totally cut off from Somalia, shows no interest in it and does not contribute materially anything.
But the other scenarios look more positive, and can even provide solutions to some of the problems of the first generation diaspora engagement. In these scenarios youth of Somali origin living in the West do have an attachment and feel responsible for making things better in Somalia.
They will have a very different way of attachments and contributions than their parents: they do not lean on clan connections, and not necessarily so strongly engage in sending family remittances. They instead get engaged along professional lines: as doctors, teachers, agriculture specialists, and journalists, and they make contributions through NGOs and possibly also businesses.
Potential also exists in further merging of diaspora associations into Finnish development cooperation, which emphasizes the policy-level human development and safeguarding of future prospects for young generation in developing countries. In the case of Somalia this issue is very prominent and urgent. The majority of Somalia’s population are young, with a very high unemployment rate, a lack of future perspectives in the country and a strong wish to migrate out of Somalia.
This situation requires not only urgent acts but also long-term visions on Somalia’s future and its youth. This is an opportunity for younger diaspora Somalis to get united and organised both in Finland and globally. Through these bigger organisations they could promote larger visions for example on how to tackle the youth issue in Somalia. Equally important would be to take care of the diaspora youth living in the West.
Text and photos: Päivi Pirkkalainen
The author defended her PhD thesis of sociology in 2013 at the University of Jyväskylä (JYU), Finland. Currently she works as a post-doctoral researcher at the Master’s Degree Programme on Civil society at the Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy, JYU. The author gave a key note presentation on the topic in a seminar co-organized by the Finnish Somalia Network and the University of Helsinki, Finland in November 2014.
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